John Sargent stressed the importance of defending freedom of speech—even if it means standing up to the leader of the free world—at the Frankfurt Book Fair yesterday.
In his speech at the C.e.o. Talk event yesterday, the head of Macmillan’s global trade publishing division detailed his reaction to Donald Trump’s lawyers’ cease and desist memo, which attempted to halt the publication of journalist Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury.
Sargent (pictured right with his interviewer, Rüdiger Wischenbart) acknowledged that his first thought after receiving Trump’s memo about the White House exposé was: “We are going to sell a shitload of books.” He added: “The first thing I thought when it came in was commercial instinct... but then it quickly struck me that this was actually an extremely serious matter. If you think about what happens in the world when a dictatorship comes in, or a democracy fails, the very first thing that happens is the government suppressing the press on anything that is negative to the government. I asked myself if I was overreacting to that, and I concluded I wasn’t.”
Discussing the email he wrote to Macmillan staff in early January, which outlined his decision, Sargent said: “I wrote the memo to staff [reiterating the importance of publishing the book] because I think freedom of speech is the very foundation of democracy. In today’s world, particularly in the US, it is increasingly polarised. There is less emphasis on freedom of speech, as people become concerned that their point of view should be yelled as loud as possible and only their point of view [heard].
“The function that we serve is not [just] the commercial function but also the function to help the democracy. It was unacceptable to us, and it should be unacceptable to everyone in America, no matter which way they vote.”
When asked about competing with new media for readers’ leisure time, he said he was not concerned about books being replaced by TV, film or other technologies. He said: “Funnily enough, if you look at book sales, you see that the books with 200 pages or more sell. It is difficult to develop characters over 25 pages... I don’t worry about the creative energy of the population not being interested in books.” He also described how companies such as Netflix were increasingly looking at content from books, adding: “They are anxiously in our offices, looking for that new book which could become a television series.”
However, on the gender pay gap figures revealed earlier this year, which appeared to show that women were paid more, on average, than men at Pan Macmillan UK, he urged caution. “I think we do a great job at Pan Macmillan. I would caution looking at those numbers... They should be looked at with some intelligent thought behind them.”